By Allison Anderson, FAIA, and Jori Erdman, AIA
The summer of 2020 brought more fires, heat, and severe storms than ever before in the midst of a global pandemic. These are all events with strong links to climate change. Architects, charged with adapting to the future, are wondering: How can we anticipate and design for a world filled with so many unknowns? How do we create design excellence that is also resilient against accelerating climate impacts: heat, storms, and fires as well as less dramatic but critical everyday impacts such as sunny-day flooding?
Perhaps we already know how. Architects design alongside uncertainty all the time. We are trained to consider multiple scenarios and create different responses for each alternative, a strategic process which gathers information, frames problems, develops options and evaluates solutions. We plan for the future by designing buildings for expansion, reuse, preservation, or disassembly. Design for climate adaptation does not reshape the design process, but it does add opportunities to improve building performance and longevity within an increasingly dynamic environment. Those measures – the length of time the building can operate independently, the time necessary to restore the building after an event, the anticipated end of a building’s useful service life before it is subject to increasing disruption, and others – are slightly different from the standard metrics of building performance.
Recent events highlight the importance and the urgency of designing for the next climate challenges, not previous benchmarks. Adaptation planning begins by considering climate, hazard, and occupancy in the early design phase:
- Understand the potential hazard. What are the dominant risks that may affect the building or site, including water inundation, storms and wind, geologic or seismic conditions, and other climate-related hazards? Is succumbing to one hazard likely to trigger another, known as cascading hazards? (An example is when high winds cause power interruptions which result in extreme heat exposure.) Are there secondary hazards that are increasing in probability or consequences? Are ongoing, nuisance impacts on the rise?
- Establish the service life of the building. How long will the site, structure, and function be viable at this location? A residential building has an average life of 75 years, but commercial buildings may only last 25 years due to a changing marketplace. (A building’s service life should extend beyond 60 years to account for embodied carbon; concrete and steel buildings should last for over 200 years to offset the carbon from their extraction, manufacture, transportation, and installation. However, concrete and steel are often necessary for enhanced resilience to hazards.) It is important to know how long the building is expected to continue operating at the site in order to plan for changing conditions at the site such as flood risk, sea level rise, wildfires, and heat gain. Does this calculation change the materials of the project? Why would you invest in high embodied carbon materials such as concrete and steel at a site that will only remain viable for 25 years?
- Work with the client to determine the desired capacity to cope with hazard impacts. Examples include: adding a tornado safe room to a school; hardening a grocery store to withstand a hurricane so that it can quickly reopen; planning continuity of operations for a government facility so it remains fully operational in a disaster. Each scenario requires different features to protect the building, its occupants, and its mission; each solution has a cost associated with advanced protection. Design must balance available resources with the need for safety, but it must also consider the impact of design on mental health; a bunker isn’t a great place to live and work, even if it offers protection from risks.
Architects interested in learning how to design for a wetter, hotter, denser world, and address the problems of resilience, capacity and interdependency, must first understand the hazards that will affect the project and the impacts that will interrupt its operations. It is our job to educate our clients about the observed and foreseeable conditions which may affect projects and communities; to use professional skill to design adaptation measures to mitigate risk throughout a project’s service life; to help people envision the future and encourage broad participation to create more equitable and resilient communities.
The AIA has developed the Resilience and Adaptation Series, including courses on Climate Change, Vulnerability Assessments, New Construction and Existing Buildings, Community Resilience, and The Business Case for Resilience. For more information, go to https://www.aia.org/resources/205786-aia-resilience-and-adaptation-certificate-s:56.
Allison Anderson, FAIA, and Jori Erdman, AIA, are both members of the AIA Resilience and Adaptation Advisory Group. Anderson, who served as chair of that group, is a Principal at unabridged Architecture in Bay St Louis, Mississippi. Erdman is an Associate Professor at James Madison University's School of Art, Design, and Art History and founder of ROOM Architecture in Charlottesville, Virginia.